The Providur’s Palace is the most recently renovated part of an integrated architectural complex in the historic center of Zadar. Together with the previously renovated Rector’s Palace, it now forms a new city institution, Two Palaces. This newborn nexus of art and culture, a contemporary intervention within the renovated historical landmarks, stretches over an area of ten thousand square meters. The complex has been envisioned as a cultural living room for the city of Zadar, as well as a significant center of art and culture in the national context.
The renovation of today’s Two Palaces was a gradual process: the renovation of the Rector’s Palace was executed between 2014 and 2017, whereas the renovation of the Providur’s Palace as an independent unit, started in 2019 and was brought to an end at the beginning of this year. The renovation was part of a bigger overall project entitled “Zadar Heritage - Integrated Cultural Program of the City of Zadar 2020”. The renovated palaces now form a well-connected complex while the final functional unification into a single entity will be completed within the scheduled third phase of the project.
The renovated Providur’s Palace opened its doors to the public in April 2022 and the official recognition of architectural excellency immediately followed: the architects Iva Letilović and Igor Pedišić received the two most important national prizes for architecture, the Annual Viktor Kovačić Award, awarded by the Croatian Architect’s Association for the most successful achievement in all areas of architectural design, and the Vladimir Nazor Award, awarded by the Croatian Ministry of Culture and Media for the greatest artistic achievement in the category of architecture and urbanism in the current year.
Most of the interior of the Providur’s Palace is dedicated to gallery spaces while, along with exhibition and educational activities, the building also hosts a branch of the Zadar City Library as well as two concert halls. Based on the agreement between the Ministry of Culture and Media, the City of Zadar and the National Museum of Modern Art, part of the NMMA permanent collection will be placed on display within the palace. The exhibition program of the Providur’s Palace was inaugurated with the exhibition “Make Them Face The Truth” by the artist Ratko Petrić, from Zadar, installed throughout both floors as well as in the atrium of the palace.
In the context of historical architecture, the Rector’s and Providur’s palaces are the most impressive building complex in the old city center. The process of gradual growth and transformation of the two palaces started in the 13th century. In the 19th century they were united into a Dalmatian government Regency complex. During the Allied bombing in World War II, almost 80 per cent of the Zadar peninsula had been destroyed, but the Providur’s and Rector’s Palaces were among the few historical buildings that survived the destruction in their original form. In postwar years, the Rector’s Palace became Zadar’s cultural hub but the subsequent destruction in the Homeland War of the 1990s extinguished all activity for the following three decades. During this entire period, Providur’s Palace hosted various city institutions, civil associations, clubs, sports alliances and numerous other small users. Owing to these historical circumstances, the Providur’s and Rector’s Palaces compound has been in the process of continuous expansion, reconstruction, partitioning and destruction depending on the needs of each specific time. Therefore the interior spaces of the palaces, although they may seem like a coherent whole to an outside observer, were not well integrated on the inside. In fact, over the centuries the interior had become a labyrinth which, as a tangled web, extended not only horizontally, but also vertically. The only contributing feature to the, at least partial, readability of the complex was the continuum of open-air spaces and atriums of very different layouts.
The renovation of the Rector’s Palace began almost a decade ago, and at the same time the architects were asked to outline a project for the renovation of the Providur’s Palace. The overall task was to create a new and multifaceted interior within the historical compound which had for centuries been subjected to partitioning and changes devoid of any methodical organisation of space. The extremely heterogenous conditions had to be transformed so as to welcome the different departments of the Zadar National Museum, that is the history, natural history and ethnology departments as well as the gallery of fine art. Each was supposed to have an autonomous exhibition space while sharing the support infrastructure. As work on the project moved further, the needs of the city changed and the project now also had to accommodate a concert hall, a multifunctional hall, the Zadar Concert Office and the city library. The extreme spatial incoherency of the previous layout was entirely unsuitable as a museum space where the necessary condition is movement, whether of visitors or of museum staff and exhibits. One of the architects’ major tasks was to create a clear route through the space and make the labyrinthine structure, the result of continuous discontinuity of use, readable.
While designing the project for the renovation of both palaces, the architects decided to keep this precious complex, the frozen image of all the transformations and traumas the buildings experienced through history, in the form that it was found in, and not destroy the existing spatial structure. In the process of renovation of the Providur’s Palace, its previous exterior, dimensions, and floors were preserved while the interior, which had previously been stripped down to its essential framework, was restructured.
The large atrium of the Providur’s Palace, one of the former open spaces around which the interiors of the compound were organized, has become a covered passage, a core space, a central zone connecting the two buildings. The spacious multilevel volume of the atrium is the most monumental part of the complex and has taken over the crucial function of being the main entrance and exit as well as the space from which a visitor can approach every section of the Two Palaces and all building floors. By means of visible overlap of historical layers and new architectural elements in the space of the atrium, the encounter of the old and the new has been made most apparent. The space is dominantly white and the light coming through the translucent polycarbonate roof draws the visitor’s eyes upwards, to the steel framework. The steel framework extends into large white staircases which cut through the space of the atrium like feelers, lightly touching the ground they cannot lean on. This is because the original stone floor hides and protects ancient containers, which now serve as water tanks for sprinklers. In addition to the stone floor, the old well cover has also been preserved.
Two bridges cross the open space of the atrium, one newly constructed, one found on-site in the process of renovation. These two bridges link the two diametrically opposed concepts of the palaces’ respective interior organization. The formerly renovated space of the Rector’s Palace, where the found remains of the interior had been painstakingly restored in order to preserve the past, are counterpointed by the discreet exhibition spaces of the Providur’s Palace. Unlike the treated, elaborate, historical and tidy spaces of the former, the walls of the latter have been left rough, bare and untreated — like an anonymous container which has yet to accommodate its artistic content. There were no stone wall sculptures nor other ornaments that could be put on view in the Providur’s Palace. The most valuable find were the frescoes revealed under more recent layers of paint. Fragments of all the uncovered remains have been preserved and placed into dialogue with the most recent architectural intervention, straightforward and noncompetitive in its materialization. The original texture of the walls and the old layers of plaster stand in contrast with the minimalist architectural elements and with the black or white natural rubber floors.
One of the two bridged bridges, a former balcony, is accentuated by its bright red color and has become a kind of trademark of the Palace. This ancient steel framework was discovered during the renovation process, under layers of plaster. An engineering gem, the bearing structure is a design particular to 19th century architecture in Dalmatia. Although intended for demolition in the original renovation plans, the architects recognized the value of the structure and decided to keep it. The steel floor of the red structure now contains a ramp, suitable for visitors with disabilities, and it has taken over the function of a bridge connecting the two palaces, already included in the original renovation design but in a different location. Due to its intense coloring, the constructive element has now become a sculpture as well — a dynamic red element in a monochromatic atrium.
Moving from the pronounced and overwhelming whiteness of the abstract space, the visitors can climb up to the highest level of the glass corridor where they will find themselves exposed to the blues of the sky and the reds of the surrounding Zadar rooftops. From a kind of belvedere, the city now becomes another exhibit on display. The meandering corridor through the palace, the different levels, bridges and staircases of the atrium, all lead to the protruding console overlooking the empty courtyard — the one remaining part of the Providur’s Palace still awaiting its upcoming renovation which will mark the completion of the Two Palaces construction project.
A steel grid placed on the roof of the complex is the technological, communication and construction backbone of the structure, crucial for the building’s viability. It hides all the installations necessary to meet the requirements in a complex envisioned for such diverse purposes, such as numerous built-in air-conditioning units, ventilation channels and supporting infrastructure. This surprising parasite penetrates, connects, and revives the historic structure it leans on, hiding all of its technological equipment while leaving its fifth facade intact.
The old stone relics, the two palaces, have thus been connected to a machine that “keeps them breathing” — an architectural suprastructure concealing new layers which the original palaces were never intended to incorporate. This structure also performs a major tectonic function: the steel grid, leaning on the palace walls, supports the translucent roof of the atrium, the staircases and the glass corridor with its scenic view.
A cursory comparison of the two floor plans of the palace, the one predating the renovation and the current one, will reveal only minor, hardly visible differences, which seem to all be in the thickness of the contours while the original form remains supreme and untouchable. However, this is only seemingly the case, for these new and necessary installation components: sprinklers, water supply and sewer networks, heating, cooling and ventilation systems, lighting, sound, video surveillance, security and emergency light, fire sectors, evacuation routes, etc., all had to be “invisibly” incorporated into the building so as to make it adhere to present-day requirements, laws and regulations.
The Providur’s Palace project, as well as the overall Two Palaces project, is a symbiosis of contemporary architectural infrastructure and the historical layers found on-site. The conceptual background of the project is a fresh, professional, and daring perspective on renovation of centuries-old buildings, which are provided with new infrastructure and adjusted for previously unintended usage, inside protected historical urban spaces. The intention of this project was to create a contemporary layer which clearly articulates and distinguishes the historical structure from the most recent intervention, whereby the two converse with and complement each other. The architects hope that this project will open the door to an unreservedly contemporary approach to construction inside historical city centers, using contemporary language and materials, supported by fruitful communication of all participants in the project: architects, conservationists, representatives of city institutions, building contractors and others.